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Archive for November, 2020

I’ve been aching for a good book of letters the last few years and then came across two excellent volumes within weeks of each other.  One was Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander (which I shared excerpts from here and here), the other Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother edited by Donald Sturrock.

Like so many children, I grew up reading Dahl’s children’s books and having them read aloud to me but it was his two volumes of autobiography – Boy and Going Solo (both now available from Slightly Foxed) – that have stayed with me the longest.  In these letters, we see many of the same events but through Dahl’s eyes at the time rather than as an adult looking back.  Thanks to excellent editing work by Sturrock (Dahl’s biographer) we also see how much of what Dahl was writing as a child was already fiction.

The letters begin when Dahl is nine, writing home to his mother from boarding school.  Sofie Magdalene Dahl had lost her eldest daughter and husband only a few weeks apart when Roald, her only son, was small.  Left a wealthy widow with four children of her own and two step-children, she was clearly a strong personality and the four decades-worth of letters in the volume testify to the strength of her relationship with her son.

Throughout his school years Dahl would paint an at times rosy or at worst benign portrait of a place he loathed and found to be full of violence and cruelty.  Sturrock ascribes this in part to the censorious practice of teachers being able to review students’ letters home but it is intriguing when compared to Dahl’s frankness about so many other things.  Dahl swears jollily from a young age and his mother must have shared his scatological sense of humour as it continues well into adulthood.  The only sadness in reading this book is in not having Sofie Magdalene’s side of the correspondence but even without it you can get some glimpses of her in the trusting, companionable way her son writes to her.

After finishing school, Dahl joined Shell Petroleum and was sent to Tanganyika where his letters attest to a steady work- and busy social-life:

I’m a bit drunk so you won’t get much of a letter.  I had meant to write to you this afternoon because I knew I should be drunk by the evening because we had a darts match on.  But someone asked me to go bathing in the Indian Ocean, so I did that instead & said well I’ll write my letter after dinner. […] Then we had a darts match against the Gymkhana ‘A’ Team in this house – it was only finished ½ an hour ago, & a great deal of liquor was consumed by all concerned.  You see the result in my handwriting for which many apologies, but the alternative is that I wait until I’m sober & miss the bloody mail & you’ll probably think I’ve been eaten by a rhinoceros or a white ant or something equally dangerous.

Though not yet thinking of a writing career, you start to see during these years snippets and images that would not be out of place in his future books, like this portrait of a fellow passenger sailing to Africa:

There’s a man sitting near me (a fat one), who is almost unconscious from the heat.  He’s flowing over his chair like a hot jellyfish – and he’s steaming too.  He may melt.

That image just begs for a Quentin Blake illustration, doesn’t it?

When the war begins, Dahl enlisted in the Royal Air Force and, as anyone who has read Going Solo will surely remember, eventually crashed his plane in the desert.  Sturrock’s interjections here are vital, comparing the facts to the fictions Dahl presents to his mother – and pointing out how rarely Dahl’s future descriptions of the crash would correspond to the truth of it.

Later in the war, Dahl finds himself posted to America as an attaché where it becomes frankly fairytale-esque.  He is instantly successful as a writer, finds himself working with Walt Disney, spends a weekend with the Roosevelts, and generally meets everyone.  And, for once, it’s all the truth.  (This reminds of me of The Irregulars by Jennet Conant, which looks at the intelligence work Dahl was doing while in America.  I had it on my shelf for years without ever reading it but wish now I had it readily to hand!)

The letters tail off after the war, with only a few spanning the decades until his mother’s death in 1967, not out of any cooling of the relationship but from the happy explanation that they were so often together during that period.  They were tumultuous years for Dahl – the dramatic injury of his son who was struck by a car as an infant, the death of his daughter, the traumatic aneurysms suffered by his wife, the actress Patricia Neal, which left her initially unable to walk or talk, and the establishing of a wildly successful writing career – but it is best to look to Sturrock’s biography detailed coverage.

This was just the book I was looking for this year.  Dahl’s letters are bright, funny and trusting, knowing that his correspondent is the most supportive person he will ever have.  They’ve left me wanting to reread his own books but especially to read Sturrock’s biography as he did such a wonderful job selecting and introducing the letters in relation to Dahl’s extraordinary life.

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Library Lust

credit: SHED Architecture and Design

As much as the decorative items spelling out ‘nest’ pain me, this dining room earns points for having both a bookshelf and amazing sliding doors that open to the outdoors.  And I love the overall modern feel of the space.

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Library Lust

via Wealden Times

It’s hard to go wrong with a solid wall of books.

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Last week didn’t go quite as planned for me.  I’d been looking forward to taking Thursday and Friday off work (following the Wednesday holiday for Remembrance Day) and escaping to Vancouver Island for a little break.  I’ve only left Vancouver twice in the last year and was eager to be anywhere that wasn’t my house for just a couple of days, even a place that I’d usually visit as a day trip.  But alas, the COVID numbers are rising dramatically here so they’ve sensibly asked us to avoid non-essential travel from the plague-ridden metropolis.

Instead, I spent my time off doing lots of walking, gardening, and, to a surprisingly small extent, reading.  I’m deep into The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili, which is a wonderfully absorbing Georgian family saga, though I’m picking up a few shorter books to give myself little breaks from it (it’s over 900 pages).  I couldn’t resist starting in on one of my most recent library books as soon as I picked it up…

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – yes, I’ve finally gone and read this beloved Pulitzer-prize-winning novel!  And very suitably it’s also the subject of Simon and Rachel’s most recent podcast episode.

Frederick the Great by Nancy Mitford – Obviously better known as a novelist, I’m intrigued by the non-fiction books Mitford wrote.  This will be the first one I’ve actually read but where better to start than with one of the most fascinating of enlightened despots?

Fabulous Monsters by Alberto Manguel – I’m in the mood for books about books and it’s hard to be in safer hands than Manguel’s.  Here he takes “an original look at how literary characters can transcend their books to guide our lives.”

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig – This sounds wonderful and like just the right thing to read in these dark days.  I know I’m in safe hands with Haig.

What did you pick up this week?

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Library Lust

photo credit: Helena Attlee

How would you feel about escaping to an Italian castle for a while? Or just escaping anywhere, frankly?  As long as it’s well-stocked with books I’m ready to go!

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Library Lust

photo credit: Jen Harrison Bunning

This is the home of Slightly Foxed editor Gail Pirkis and, given her excellent literary taste, it’s no surprise her interior decorating sense is just as good.

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

November seems to be off to a bumpy start, which seems the perfect excuse (as though an excuse were ever needed) to stockpile a ridiculous number of books.

Too Marvellous for Words! by Julie Welch – the inter-library loan system is running again!  Sort of.  To the extent that other libraries around the province/country are open and sufficiently staffed to participate.  It may be back in only a small way but it meant I was able to finally get my hands on this memoir of 1960s boarding school life that I’ve been trying to track down since first hearing about it in early 2017.

An Accomplished Woman by Jude Morgan – I never, ever get tired of reading this Heyer-esque tale.

A Rage for Rock Gardening by Nicola Shulman – I’ve not been able to escape the plant collector Reginald Farrer this year, mainly because I keep reading Ursula Buchan and she keeps mentioning him.  There was a piece about him in a collection of her garden writings, then he appeared in her biography of her grandfather John Buchan, and finally there was an essay about him in the Summer 2020 edition of the Slightly Foxed quarterly.  Clearly, Buchan finds him interesting and I’m intrigued to learn more about him in this slim biography.

Beartown by Fredrik Backman – I had my first encounter with Backman last month when I read his newest novel, Anxious People, which I loved.  I’m intrigued to start on this soon.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – I’ve had this on hold for ages but have been leaving it paused (a wonderful feature!  Bless all libraries that allow this), waiting for the right mood to hit.  As the days grow darker and shorter, now seems like the right time to pick up this latest offering from the always dependable Patchett.

The Lost Love Song by Minnie Darke – I was surprised in the spring by how much I enjoyed Darke’s first novel, Star-Crossed, a romantic comedy centered around astrology.  Happily, I didn’t have a long wait before this, her second book, came out and I sped through it right away and with great satisfaction.

Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee – In Lee’s first book, Turning, she combined memoir and nature writing beautifully as she wrote about her experiences swimming in the lakes around Berlin.  Here she explores Taiwan to discover the land her family came from.

Ask Me Anything by P.Z. Reizin – I’m fairly skeptical of “smart” technology but what if it were plotting to help you?  I’m looking forward to Reizin’s take on that in this “romantic comedy for the technology age“.

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher – I read September by Pilcher when I was on holiday at the end of the summer and while I had my quibbles with it I can’t deny that it was absorbing.  I know this is many people’s favourite of her works so thought I’d give it a try.

Something of His Art by Horatio Clare – It’s here!   I have been waiting years for the library to get hold of this (truly, it appeared in the catalogue so long ago that my first hold expired – which means I’d had it on hold for more than a year and a half).  It’s a slim book to carry the pressure of so much anticipation but it was worth the wait for just the beautiful cover design alone – Little Toller have done a stunning job.

Finally, the remaining two titles from Handheld Press that I’d asked the library to buy have come in: Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner and The Runagates Club by John Buchan.

What did you pick up this week?

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I promised to share more from the superb Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander, a collection of letters written by Alexander during the war to her future husband, following the first one.  So here we go – a delightful account of Alexander’s first and far from hum-drum encounter with working life.

Through family connections, she found herself filling in during the 1939 Christmas holidays in the office of Leslie Hore-Belisha, the Secretary of State for War.  She derides his staff as ‘Public Adorers’, devoted to him, but it’s not hard to see where that devotion could come from – Alexander is clearly fond of him after just the one meeting, though less fond of the Public Adorer who comes to interrupt it so Hore-Belisha can shift his focus once more to the war:

I’ve had a most fantastic day, darling, which is a Good Thing, because there’s been no time for my imagination to sit on brood (a lovely expression, I’ve always felt – and from one of my best-known plays too).

Miss Sloane introduced me to her underling – a Miss Fox, whose underling I am to be (and damn me if she isn’t a fully fledged Public Adorer as well!  This thing is becoming a cult – but I’m pledged to it now and there is no escape).

Then Miss Sloane said, ‘I think Mr Hore-Belisha wants to see you,’ and she flung open the double doors – and there I was in his room.  That was at three – at three-five he’d already found out why I love Malory – at 3.10 he was asking me what position the Jews held in Mediaeval Society (if any) and at 3.15 – I was giving him a lecture on Chivalric Love Poetry, and religious mania as exemplified in the ‘Book of Margery Kempe’.  He just sat and nodded all the while – and then he sighed and said, ‘My dear, you must come in and read me some of these things.  I feel like the child in Robert Louis Stevenson’s fable – everyone laughed at him for playing with toys – and so he put them away in a cupboard, saying that he’d play with them again when he was grown-up and no-one would dare laugh at him, then – and then he forgot all about them.  You have opened the cupboard for me, and I have caught a glimpse of the things I had forgotten.  Please come and read to me sometimes.’

It was very beautiful, darling – and then the crash came.  PA No. 1, who had been standing by chafing all things while, now bustled busily forward.  ‘Certainly, certainly,’ she said briskly, more in anger than in sorrow, ‘Eileen will be glad to read to you when we’ve got rid of the war – but you’ve got to see the Prime Minister in five minutes – and you put off Lady Dawson of Penn,’ (Leslie here interjected irritably, ‘Damn the woman’ and PA No. 1 looked as shocked as a PA can permit herself to look) ‘so as we could go through the points of your interview together’ – (glowering at me) ‘and we haven’t.’  Whereat she seized me by the shoulder and pushed me out – shutting the door with a determined click.  Not So Beautiful. (14 December 1939)

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